How often have you heard a student say 'I don't get it!', or 'I will never understand this language'? How often have you seen them do that puffy thing with the cheeks and shrug* their shoulders before going slumping in their seats?
There's always a point where it feels easier to give up rather than plod on, as in life as it is in English language learning. How many times have you felt as if you have reached the end of the line with something?
As you may have noticed, I'm on a bit of a Student Motivation streak in my writing at present, as it's been nagging at me as to why some learners persist and why others, well, don't. In part, it is derived from the fact that I'm trying to write consistently for a hundred days, and so I'm aware of the apices and nadirs within my own motivation from day to day - and hour to hour, in fact. And because I'm aware of it in myself, I observe it in others. Currently, I have a new student, who joined the class late and has quite a complex background. This person has had some severe difficulties in life, and has only just got back into some kind of routine, but has been out of mainstream education for a very long time (they are in their forties). Doing an exercise today, I noticed that while other students were getting on with the task, this person (let's call them 'A.X.') was sitting still. A.X. then shook their head, threw the pencil down, and said 'no understand'.
I intervened at this point, as A.X. really needed guidance. After a few minutes' work, A.X. got it, and carried on with the exercises with a considerable look of relief on their face.
A.X. is an example from the more extreme end of the 'I don't get it' spectrum, and one that will take a lot of coaching and coaxing over the months to come. If we're in a class with 30 students, however, how on earth can we give just that kind of support to each and every learner?
I think a lot of what helps or hinders the English learner is not only their expectation of the experience of learning the language, but also how they react to problems in general. Put simply, the more 'rigidly' they view a problem, the more likely it is that they will fail to crack it. To give a simple example, some learners spend years trying to get their heads round the present perfect while others just dive in merrily, splashing examples of the tense all over the language pool, if you don't mind me extending my metaphor. Another issue is, of course, speaking: some students are so concerned with speaking without mistakes that they never open their mouths at all.
It seems to me that the learners most likely to get a block with language are those who, as it were, seek perfectibility - that is, they want the language to pop out fully-formed, rather than something that needs to be whelped into shape. At this point, we should actually look at what really confident language learners do. It is generally noticeable that these kind of students are more likely to be not afraid of making mistakes; that they do more reading; and that they are more likely to talk with people outside the classroom, to have better jobs, and to generally seem better-adjusted to living in a native speaker environment. In short, learners who are more resilient to problems and and for whom failure is just a step towards success are more likely to be better language learners and become more fluent.
It does give rise to an alternative idea, however: Should that statement be the other way around? Are better users of a language more likely to be more resilient in the face of problems?
In a way, this would make sense - the greater your fluency, the greater your capacity to verbalise an issue and find a way to deal with it. But of course, when it comes to adult language learning, it is probably a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other.
What I think is most effective, at least in the classroom, is to emphasise the fact that mistakes will be made - and in fact, that making mistakes is the best way to experiment with and perfect the target language. As I say to my learners, 'You're here because you don't speak perfect English. If you did, you wouldn't be here, and I would be out of a job'.
Students should be aware that they are allowed to fail, and fail again, and 'fail' once more if necessary, because it isn't failing. It's learning.
*There's a whole book waiting to be written about the meaning of shoulder shrugs and to what extent different people indulge in them, from the cool Parisian mere wisp of a rise of one shoulder to the full on comical both-shoulders-hands-raised-lower-lip-pout found in Central Anatolia.
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